AdFreeq's adBoard offers users the ability to curate and share classifieds.
The newspaper industry's print model has hit a rough patch—its outdated pricing strategies continually fail to produce reliable revenue. And with local classifieds moving online, it's easy to see why some small-town papers have folded.
But Peter Meng (left) thinks he can help publishers monetize their online presence with a new-age version of the classifieds. He co-founded his solution, adFreeq, to connect sellers with niche markets.
"We're trying to personalize classified ads," he said. "We want it to be less intrusive and more and more about the presentation, so stuff finds you based on your interests."
The startup's app can live on any publisher's site as an "adPortal," which pulls in contextual data in order to serve targeted ads.
And publishers are interested.
"We've presented it to customers and they literally said 'we're salivating over this,' " Meng said. "It's encouraging that you've built the right product for your customer." Earlier this month, adFreeq classifieds began appearing (below) on the Columbia Missourian's newspaper website.
What sets adFreeq apart from traditional web-based ad providers is the hyper-local, user-generated content. So if you're reading an article about the St. Louis Cardinals' opening day roster, adFreeq might serve up local offerings from folks selling tickets.
Meng got the idea about four years ago, when Twitter launched its search feature. He was fascinated with the potential of social and location-based ads. Two years later, Meng pitched adFreeq for the Missouri School of Journalism's Reynolds Fellowship.
Missouri gave him the go-ahead to start research in Fall 2011. "We were able to prove that the market validated it, that the customers wanted and needed it," Meng said. "This wasn't an idea that we were throwing up against the wall, hoping it would work."
In Spring 2012 the startup finished its prototype, and earlier this year, adFreeq launched its first version.
The business' success hinges on three users: publishers, sellers and buyers. Meng said adFreeq benefits the lot. Publishers want in because they get a cut—70 percent—of the posting fees. AdFreeq lets sites control parameters such as pricing and topic matter through embedded adPortals. Sellers get access to a specific market, and buyers get an aggregated, personalized feed of products, along with search and filtering features that help adFreeq outshine sites like Craigslist.
AdFreeq also aims to stand out with a Pinterest-like feature called adBoards, which lets users curate and share classifieds they're interested in.
The U.S. branch is funded by a $50,000 investment from Capital Innovators—a St. Louis, Mo., startup accelerator—and Meng's $80,000 fellowship. The startup last week added another $50,000 from St. Louis when it earned an Arch Grant. As a result, Meng said his company will add a sales office in the city.
In China, the government granted adFreeq $160,000, which was enhanced by an angel investor—they're hoping to launch that version by month's end.
AdFreeq plans to make that money back by taking 30 percent of each posting fee. Meng aims to get adPortals on 200 to 300 sites in the next 6 months, but noted that hooking bloggers could accelerate the process.
"If we build like we think we can and create a viral product that a lot of blogs will want to have, it's going to be significant," he said.
They're also working to grow their network of providers; Meng's goal is to have 10 million user and business ads within system by the end of the year.
Here's an adFreeq promotional video outlining how it works and why it benefits publishers.